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Baker v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division

September 28, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This matter is before the court on United States Magistrate Judge Kaymani D. West's Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) that this court affirm Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill's[1] (the “Commissioner”) decision denying plaintiff Sarah Marie Baker's (“Baker”) claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). Baker filed objections to the R&R. For the reasons set forth below, the court adopts the R&R and affirms the Commissioner's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         Baker filed an application for DIB on November 20, 2012, [2] alleging disability beginning August 4, 2009. Tr. 243-47. She later amended her application to change her alleged onset date to October 31, 2010. Tr. 248. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied Baker's claim initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 132, 153. Baker requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and ALJ Kevin F. Foley (the “ALJ”) held a hearing on June 24, 2015. Tr. 82-117. The ALJ issued a decision on August 27, 2015, finding that Baker was not disabled under the Social Security Act (the “Act”). Tr. 72. Baker requested Appeals Council review of the ALJ's decision. Tr. 56-58. The Appeals Council declined to review the decision, Tr. 1-6, rendering the ALJ's decision the final action of the Commissioner.

         On March 14, 2016, Baker filed this action seeking review of the ALJ's decision. ECF No. 1. The Magistrate Judge issued an R&R on March 10, 2017, recommending that this court affirm the ALJ's decision. ECF No. 13. Baker filed objections to the R&R on March 22, 2017, ECF No. 15, and the Commissioner responded on April 4, 2017, ECF No. 16. The matter is now ripe for the court's review.

         B. Medical History

         Because Baker's medical history is not directly at issue here, the court dispenses with a lengthy recitation thereof and instead notes a few relevant facts. Baker was born on September 27, 1973, and was 37 years old at the time of her alleged disability onset date. Tr. 259. She communicates in English and has attended a technical college. Her past relevant work includes gas station cashier, fast food cashier, and general office worker. Tr. 265.

         C. ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ employed the statutorily required five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether Baker was disabled between October 31, 2010 and December 31, 2014, the date Baker was last insured under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). At step one, the ALJ determined that Baker had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the relevant period. Tr. 64. At step two, the ALJ found that Baker suffered from the following severe impairments: (1) status post tibia and sacro-ileum fractures with chronic pain, and (2) depression with anxiety. Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that Baker's impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the listed impairments in the Agency's Listing of Impairments (“the Listings”). Id. at 66; see 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1. Before reaching the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Baker had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, as defined by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), with certain restrictions. Id. More specifically, the ALJ determined that Baker: (1) could only occasionally use her left lower extremity for operation of foot controls; (2) could only occasionally kneel, crouch, crawl, or climb ramps and stairs; (3) should be limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks involving one, two, and three step instructions; (4) should only have occasional contact with the public; and (5) should not be exposed to confrontational supervision. Id. At step four, the ALJ found that Baker was able to perform her past relevant work as an office clerk, fast food cashier, and cashier-checker as they are normally performed. Id. at 72. Therefore, the ALJ found that Baker was not under a disability, as defined by the Act, during the relevant period. Id.


         This court is charged with conducting a de novo review of any portion of the R&R to which specific, written objections are made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). A party's failure to object is accepted as agreement with the conclusions of the magistrate judge. See Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 149-50 (1985). The recommendation of the Magistrate Judge carries no presumptive weight, and the responsibility to make a final determination rests with this court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71 (1976).

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision regarding disability benefits “is limited to determining whether the findings of the [Commissioner] are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct law was applied.” Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Id. (internal citations omitted). “[I]t is not within the province of a reviewing court to determine the weight of the evidence, nor is it the court's function to substitute its judgment for that of the [Commissioner] if his decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Id. Where conflicting evidence “allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [ALJ], ” not on the reviewing court. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (internal citation omitted). However, “[a] factual finding by the ALJ is not binding if it was reached by means of an improper standard or misapplication of the law.” Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).

         III. ...

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